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How to actually put community at the centre of public-purpose tech
By Afua Bruce and Amy Sample Ward, authors of The Tech That Comes Next.
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In designing, developing, delivering, and maintaining public purpose tech, how the organization doing the work functions is equally as important as what it delivers. But how can tech creators - and related stakeholders - actually put community at the center of tech development?
While what technology to be used when will differ from organization to organization, what remains consistent is the need for organizations to make these decisions in the best interest of the communities they serve and to be transparent about the what and why of these decisions. Ultimately, inclusive decision-making processes and communication will generate stronger plans and a greater impact that evolves over time.
Excerpt from The Tech That Comes Next: Centre the Community in Your Tech
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In addition to technology being integral to every staff member’s job, the tools, platforms, and systems an organization uses to collect and store participant data, distribute programs, track service delivery, and communicate all clearly impact the external community as well. As such, including a diversity of internal and external community members in technology planning, prioritization, and decision-making is key to successful plans and processes.
Unfortunately, in many social impact organizations technology projects often receive the least-inclusive planning and processes, sometimes because decisions seem to be set by funders or in grants, or because there are assumptions that only those on the IT team are necessary for participation. Prioritizing the organization’s predetermined goals or assumptions about the community’s needs in technology planning is not a replacement for or equivalent to directly including community members as participants in technology projects. Social impact organizations can honor the lived experience and expertise of the community in a multitude of ways, and centering the community over funders or other institutions can happen in many situations.
Including community members or program participants in tech projects and committees—whether ongoing or for a finite project or process like strategic planning or redesigning the website—is a valuable way of fostering community–organization engagement. Given their wide range of experience in the programs or services that the organization provides, community members can offer relevant perspective and feedback, suggest new and better options, and highlight challenges that those not participating would not necessarily see or anticipate.
Centering the community also requires organizations to prioritize the needs, objectives, and expectations of current and prospective program participants or service beneficiaries, even when those needs or goals are different than what the organization’s strategic plan may have previously said or what a funder has deemed most important. It’s not likely that any organization’s 2020 planning anticipated a global pandemic, for example. The needs in communities can change rapidly—whether from something as large as a pandemic or something local like an election or new law. Staying focused on the community’s real needs builds trust with the organization or program and that trust equates to power that the organization needs to use in pushing funders or organizational leaders to realign regularly where the funding or operational goals focus.
Self-determination in social impact organization’s programs and services rightly creates opportunities for participants to set the goals, priorities, or desired outcomes for their participation, whether these be learning objectives or health outcomes or even personal wellbeing.
How does an organization’s technology systems enable self-determination?
Another way that centering the community in technology planning can look is implementing tools that allow participants to input their own goals, track progress, or provide personal reports on their status or achievements. This might be done during event registration processes, through an individual’s profile, or even in-person service in-take appointments.
In addition to the options an organization provides within the technology systems for participants, the selection of software and social media platforms that an organization uses to engage with community members needs to be considered through a careful process with a priority on harm reduction. If the platforms or providers are actively contributing to the issues that social impact organizations are trying to address, investing in those same provider’s technologies is oftentimes difficult to avoid as many of these technology giants are too prominent to avoid and also challenging to the larger goal for the organization. For example, many organizations don’t feel they could do the same word of mouth marketing and information sharing to those they serve without using Facebook, despite the numerous reports and studies spotlighting cases of Facebook encouraging, allowing, or otherwise incentivizing data misuse, misinformation, harassment, or other material harms for users, especially users of color, LGBTQIA+ users, or those with other identities or needs that make them vulnerable to abuse.
Read more of The Tech That Comes Next.